Strip mining and birth defects, by the numbers

July 19, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

There’s was a great piece from Sue Sturgis at Facing South that I missed last week when I was doing our Coal Tattoo Friday Roundup … so I wanted to mention it here.

In INSTITUTE INDEX: Appalachia’s deepening human rights crisis, Sue outlines some of the numbers about the new study exposing the link between mountaintop removal coal mining and higher rates of birth defects in the Appalachian coalfields:

Of every 100,000 babies born, number who suffer from birth defects in areas of Appalachia where coal is mined by mountaintop removal, in which ammonium nitrate fuel oil explosives are used to expose coal seams: 235

In non-mining areas: 144

Percent higher risk of having a baby with a birth defect for mothers who smoked during pregnancy compared to non-smoking mothers: 17

Percent higher risk of having a baby with a birth defect for mothers living in mountaintop removal areas compared to mothers living in non-mining areas: 42

Percent that a mother’s smoking increases the risk that her baby will be born with defects of the circulatory or respiratory system: 17

Percent that a mother’s living in a mountaintop removal mining area increases the risk of such defects: 181

The piece also mentions:

Date on which mountaintop removal mining opponents held an emergency press conference in Washington to draw attention to a bill that would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of the power to regulate the practice: 7/13/2011

Amount in campaign contributions from mining interests to Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the sponsor of that bill: $142,600

I’m still waiting for a chance to interview my good friend Congressman Rahall about the birth defects study and what he thinks should be done about the increased risks faced by folks in his district.

Congressman Nick Rahall, right, and Barbara Mollohan check the returns in the war room at his home, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010, in Beckley, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

9 Responses to “Strip mining and birth defects, by the numbers”

  1. bo webb says:

    I am looking forward to that interview with Rahall. I met with him on the 13th. He had no comment about the birth defects research. What he did say is that HR 2018 is a symbolic bill as is 90% of the bills introduced in congress. Think about that for just a moment. We are facing a health crisis in Appalachian mtr communities and Rahall intoduces a symbolic bill for the coal industry supporting more mtr. I have to assume that 90 percent of Rahall’s other bills are simply symbolic also. Seems to me he should cast hr2018 in the trash can and get serious about introducing a bill to protect his constituents lives. How about a “blasting bill” ? No mtr blasting within 3 miles of human beings. In other words, abolish mtr now; it’s more unhealthy than smoking cigarettes, and you inhale it without choice.

  2. PJD says:


    I really appreciate your work shining a light on this very important story. Yet, aside from your own article in the Gazette this last Sunday, and Don Hopey’s article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette up here last Thursday, coverage of this impotant story in the mainstream media is virtually zero.

    Similarly, I am going to apply a bit of media-theory science done by Chomsky, Herman or McChesney, to predict that the coverage of the nearly umprecendented heat wave coming this way (at least a week of over 100F every day up in DC) will be peculiarly downplayed in the major broadsheets and TV networks – “peculiar” because extreme weather events are normally one of those safe fluff stories the editors seem to prefer over hard news with the least bit of “controversy”.

    Are you familiar with the organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    You wrote:

    “Yet, aside from your own article in the Gazette this last Sunday, and Don Hopey’s article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette up here last Thursday, coverage of this impotant story in the mainstream media is virtually zero.”

    Just for the record —

    As noted here, previously — There was coverage from the Lexington Herald-Leader (which went national with their chain’s news service), public radio in Kentucky, the Courier-Journal and USA Today. Not to mention Rolling Stone.

    Also, we ran a previous story, the day the study was released, by Paul Nyden,

    I’m not sure that worrying about the “major broadsheets” and TV networks is as important as it once was.

    Here in West Virginia, for example, folks interested in this issue should be more concerned about the lack of coverage of it by, say West Virginia Radio Corp.’s MetroNews network.


  4. I too was in that meeting with Bo Webb at Congressman Rahall’s office on the 13th July in Washington, DC. It was stunning to see the 18th-termer stare in silence, his only real reply, as Bo Webb, Maria Gunnoe and Vernon Haltom described the horror and the heartbreak of living with the long-term effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. Armed with the Hendryx report –copied in the hundreds– distributing them on the Hill. Rahall had nothing to say other than trying to pass the buck, first to, Alpha, then OSM. We saw up close and personal what Robert Kennedy Jr calls the “subversion of democracy in the state of West Virginia,” and it was Rep. Rahall, stone dead in the eyes as West Virginians pleaded for justice.

  5. Observer says:

    “… it’s more unhealthy than smoking cigarettes …”

    Where is the peer reviewed science backing up that claim???

  6. Vernon says:

    Observer, the birth defects study (peer reviewed science) we provided Rahall and others in Congress shows the rate of birth defects in children born to mothers living near MTR is over twice that of children born to mothers who smoke while pregnant. For circulatory/respiratory birth defects, the rate is over 10 times that of children born to smoking mothers.

  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I believe that’s a quote from Dr. Hendryx:

    “For the years 2000-2003, mothers who smoked during pregnancy had a 17% higher risk of a baby born with a birth defect (compared to mothers who didn’t smoke). For mothers living in mountaintop mining areas, the risk was 42% higher (compared to mothers who lived in non-mining areas). For babies born specifically with defects of the circulatory or respiratory system, smoking increased risk by 17%, and living in a mountaintop mining area increased risk by 181%. Living in a mountaintop mining area was a bigger risk for birth defects than smoking.”


  8. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Though let me add … Bo’s statement:

    “… It’s more unhealthy than smoking cigarettes”

    Well, in my view, that needs more context. I’m not sure that an examination of whether smoking is more or less unhealthy for an adult would support that statement — though I have not looked at any science on that. In this context, we’re talking about birth defects, and impacts of mothers smoking during pregnancy.


  9. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Finally, if you click through to the Facing South piece, they have links for the sources of their numbers. Ken.

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